They Are Not Afraid

u'\xa9' Main photo hannesm75 © 2011

By Jeremy Varon, February 2012

My rel­ev­ant know­ledge with re­spect to Oc­cupy Wall Street (OWS) is the his­tory of so­cial move­ments and civil dis­obedi­ence in the United States, as well as what I have learned from par­ti­cip­a­tion in ex­tra-leg­al res­ist­ance — chiefly in the con­text of non-vi­ol­ent, “dir­ect ac­tion” op­pos­i­tion to the tor­ture policies of the Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions. I build my com­ments out of this back­ground, ini­tially of­fer­ing a string of pro­pos­i­tions. These theses were first de­veloped in late Oc­to­ber, 2011, when OWS had the aura of “the new,” and the ques­tion — sub­sequent to the co­er­cive clear­ing of Zuc­cotti Park and near all “oc­cupy” en­camp­ments na­tion­wide — of “What’s next?” did not hov­er so ur­gently over it. They re­main, however, rel­ev­ant to OWS’s cur­rent mo­ment and pos­sible fu­ture.

My first claim is the need to ap­pre­ci­ate the pro­voca­tion OWS rep­res­ents — how much its power has been rooted in trans­gres­sion and a newly de­fi­ant at­ti­tude. The second is to un­der­stand that the de­fi­ance is both of law and of con­ven­tion­al un­der­stand­ings of pub­lic or­der, but also of as­sump­tions about how protest­ors as­semble, ar­tic­u­late, and act. Con­sequently, I ar­gue that to ideally sup­port this move­ment, one must not merely ex­press af­fin­ity with OWS’s well-doc­u­mented griev­ances, which large ma­jor­it­ies have done in opin­ion sur­veys, but ap­pre­ci­ate and even cel­eb­rate the ca­pa­cit­ies of this new en­ergy to dis­rupt the nor­mal func­tion­ing of polit­ic­al pro­cesses and open up pos­sib­il­it­ies for what OWS ad­her­ents en­vi­sion as true change. Fi­nally, my com­ments sug­gest the in­ad­equacy of an at­ti­tude that af­firms the right of OWS to protest so long as such protest is per­fectly law­ful and or­derly. Such a view, ad­op­ted (de facto) even by “lib­er­al” may­ors in ma­jor cit­ies who pro­fess sym­pathy with the move­ment as they act to crush it, po­ten­tially com­prom­ises OWS by shoe­horn­ing it with­in bound­ar­ies that can eas­ily di­lute and even nul­li­fy dis­sent. That at­ti­tude is in­ad­equate, wheth­er com­ing from a pres­id­ent, a city lead­er, a polit­ic­al party, a uni­on, or a uni­versity ad­min­is­trat­or. OWS is not as­sert­ing simply its right to speak its mind but its power to have its think­ing and val­ues mat­ter, and these can be very dif­fer­ent things.

Of course, ac­know­ledging and sup­port­ing the trans­gress­ive power of OWS does not mean the lim­it­less en­dorse­ment of any­thing done in its name. Any move­ment has the right and ob­lig­a­tion to ar­tic­u­late and as­sert com­mon val­ues, such as non-vi­ol­ence. Ef­forts to es­tab­lish and prac­tic­ally en­force move­ment norms should not be re­flex­ively equated with the as­sump­tion by the move­ment of “po­lice powers,” mir­ror­ing those of the state. Ten­sions have already aris­en with­in OWS (and in Oak­land es­pe­cially, as the scene of tu­mul­tu­ous protests) re­gard­ing what range of ac­tion is both con­struct­ive and ac­cept­able. These ne­ces­sary de­bates are best served if rash and re­duct­ive judg­ments, more-rad­ic­al-than-thou pos­tur­ing, com­pet­i­tion over ideo­lo­gic­al “pur­ity,” cen­sori­ous­ness, dog­mat­ism, and im­pulses to fac­tion­al­ism are avoided.

Months from its in­cep­tion, I re­main in­clined to think of OWS in terms of mul­tiple break­throughs, which now frame my com­ments. The first con­cerns polit­ic­al dis­course — shifts in “the terms of the de­bate” — from which OWS’s ef­fic­acy and broad­er polit­ic­al iden­tity can be de­rived. In one sense, OWS has served to con­firm what we already knew: that mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans blame primar­ily ex­cess­ive cor­por­ate power for the sys­tem­ic ills of the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy. It is pathet­ic that it should have taken three-hun­dred “kids” sleep­ing out in a con­crete-and-marble park, the broad­cast on You­tube of a young wo­man get­ting maced by po­lice, 800 people be­ing en­trapped in­to ar­rest on the Brook­lyn Bridge, and so forth, to make this so­cial fact present again. But it did. No longer is the Tea Party in the driver’s seat of Amer­ic­an polit­ics, as it was as re­cently as the sum­mer of 2011. As count­less pun­dits have as­ser­ted, veri­fied by quant­it­at­ive ana­lyses of me­dia con­tent, is­sues of in­equal­ity, ac­count­ab­il­ity, and fair­ness in the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy and lar­ger so­ci­ety are now ubi­quit­ous in pub­lic dis­course. Fur­ther, OWS has helped frame the con­ser­vat­ive diet of lower taxes, smal­ler gov­ern­ment, and few­er reg­u­la­tions not as an ex­pres­sion of in­di­vidu­al liberty or fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity, but as the raw deal offered, with­in ar­chetyp­al OWS rhet­or­ic, by the one per­cent to main­tain its priv­ilege. As a res­ult, Amer­ica is per­haps ap­proach­ing, as the 2012 elec­tion sea­son ad­vances, the point where it can have a min­im­ally in­clus­ive con­ver­sa­tion about what ails it.

This may seem a mod­est achieve­ment, but it is not. Many voices, with vary­ing meas­ure of cred­ib­il­ity, had tried to pull this sword of ba­sic reas­on from the rock of ludicrous ideo­logy and mostly failed, wheth­er Van Jones, trade uni­on lead­ers, pro­gress­ive politi­cians, or Pres­id­ent Obama him­self. In­deed, any hon­est as­sess­ment must ac­know­ledge that OWS is, in part, a rad­ic­al echo of Pres­id­ent Obama’s own cam­paign creed. Can­did­ate Obama preached a de­ra­cial­ized mes­sage (to a fault) of middle-class em­power­ment in ef­forts to ac­tiv­ate a “si­lent ma­jor­ity” all his own. Obama’s premise was that the Amer­ic­an dream, for count­less Amer­ic­ans who have worked hard and “played by the rules,” was be­com­ing in­ac­cess­ible — that the prom­ise of a well-pay­ing and stable job, home own­er­ship without oner­ous debt, af­ford­able health care for one’s fam­ily and edu­ca­tion for one’s chil­dren, and a liv­able en­vir­on­ment, was grow­ing out of reach.

Re­gard­less of wheth­er Obama’s mes­sage was smothered by Re­pub­lic­an ob­stin­acy, Obama’s own feck­less­ness, or his de facto loy­alty to the same cor­por­ate sys­tem dis­em­power­ing the middle class, the core mes­sage of OWS res­on­ated with an es­tab­lished cri­tiques and as­pir­a­tions that had been driv­en for more than a year to the mar­gins of na­tion­al dis­course. It should come as no sur­prise, then, that OWS’s most sig­ni­fic­ant (if still in­tan­gible) “gain” has been the re­cent re­tool­ing of the Obama cam­paign to stress is­sues of equity and shared sac­ri­fice (however tep­id that mes­sage and the re­forms it sug­gests). In this second echo, OWS’s pe­cu­li­ar, tri­part­ite char­ac­ter comes in to view: to pres­sure os­tens­ibly pro­gress­ive lead­ers and in­sti­tu­tions to fight more ag­gress­ively on be­half of their pro­fessed be­liefs; to ar­gue the im­plic­a­tion even of the lib­er­al es­tab­lish­ment with­in cor­por­ate dom­in­ance; and to charge that the en­tire polit­ic­al sys­tem is so pro­ced­ur­ally dys­func­tion­al and clogged with cor­por­ate power that the in­sti­tu­tions of rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy are not ad­equate for real­iz­ing true solu­tions to the cur­rent crisis. Put oth­er­wise, and now in spa­tial terms, a rad­ic­al uto­pi­an ker­nel seek­ing po­ten­tially re­volu­tion­ary change in the form of dir­ect demo­cracy is sur­roun­ded by a more stra­tegic skep­ti­cism re­gard­ing pos­sib­il­it­ies even for mean­ing­ful change with­in the frame­work of ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions; both these im­pulses, likely at the fringe of the Amer­ic­an main­stream, at once an­im­ate and re­ceive suc­cor from an am­bi­ent, com­mon-sense pop­u­lism that de­sires, through re­form polit­ics, the par­tial right­ing of ba­sic so­cial wrongs.

How was this break­through in polit­ic­al dis­course pos­sible? It was achieved on the back of an­oth­er break­through, which I’ll call simply a shift in people’s level of ser­i­ous­ness, with po­ten­tially far-reach­ing con­sequences. At the core of OWS’s early suc­cess is the ac­cept­ance in in­di­vidu­als and com­munit­ies of the need for res­ist­ance, a heightened sense of per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity to par­ti­cip­ate in struggle, and a stub­born faith that one can trans­form this so­ci­ety, des­pite the very con­di­tion of hope­less­ness at the cen­ter of the OWS com­plaint. That con­vic­tion has ex­pressed it­self in a vari­ety of forms. Per­haps above all, count­less thou­sands of people are will­ing today, in ways they were not just a year ago, to make sac­ri­fices, to take risks, and even go to jail to take and hold this park or bridge or cam­pus en­camp­ment, to walk down this street, to protest in this lobby of this bank, at this fore­clos­ure hear­ing. It’s a pro­found break­through — this read­i­ness to as­sume risk on a large scale — pro­duced by a so­cial al­chemy no one fully un­der­stands.

Of course, this shift has pre­ced­ent, both dis­tant and near. As to the lat­ter, the over-reach of Wis­con­sin Gov­ernor Scott Walk­er in back­ing a Uni­on-bust­ing bill led to the pro­trac­ted “oc­cu­pa­tion” of the Wis­con­sin state house by a com­bin­a­tion of work­ers, stu­dents, and oth­ers in a fest­iv­al of left-pop­u­list push­back. Or­gan­ized op­pos­i­tion to the pro­posed Key­stone XL pipeline and lar­ger tar sands ini­ti­at­ive res­ul­ted last sum­mer in ap­prox­im­ately 1,000 ar­rests, in among the largest cam­paigns of co­ordin­ated civil dis­obedi­ence in years, or even dec­ades. But even so, OWS is dif­fer­ent, giv­en the al­most total lack of na­tion­al or re­gion­al co­ordin­a­tion, the geo­graph­ic di­versity of ar­rests, and the ab­sence of a single is­sue (like se­greg­a­tion or the Vi­et­nam War) to gal­van­ize what so­cial sci­ent­ists call “high-risk act­iv­ism” on a large scale and to func­tion as a spe­cif­ic tar­get of protest. It is, in his­tor­ic­al terms, a re­mark­able oc­cur­rence when crit­ic­al masses of people, as part of a “protest wave,” are will­ing to en­gage in ex­tra-leg­al protest. We are now liv­ing in the days of this rare won­der.

A stu­dent of mine, an older Latino gen­tle­man, con­veyed this shift with spe­cial poignancy. I had asked my lec­ture class at Man­hat­tan’s New School, many of whose stu­dents had been act­ive at OWS protests (and among the ar­restees), what felt dif­fer­ent, in the na­tion, in the city, and on cam­pus since OWS has ris­en. He said ad­mir­ingly of the young OWSers that “they are not afraid.” The line links up with the great lyr­ic of the Civil Rights an­them “We Shall Over­come” and ref­er­ences something of the pathos and dy­nam­ism of the lar­ger Civil Rights Move­ment. In truth, hav­ing my­self been in ar­rest situ­ations, it is likely the case that fear is nev­er elim­in­ated. Rather, some among today’s young ap­pear more afraid of hav­ing their fu­tures rad­ic­ally com­prom­ised by crip­pling debt, or the bio­sphere sacked by cor­por­a­tions, or struc­tur­al in­equal­it­ies blight the life chances of their fel­low cit­izens than they are of spend­ing an even­ing in jail or hav­ing their eyes blown out by pep­per spray. The shared abil­ity to push past fear is a tre­mend­ous as­set of a so­cial move­ments. Of course, OWS has not ex­pressed to date any­where near the depth of sac­ri­fice as, say, the Free­dom Riders strug­gling to in­teg­rate bus lines or Stu­dent Non-Vi­ol­ent Co­ordin­at­ing Com­mit­tees work­ing to se­cure vot­ing rights for Blacks in the deep South. But it evinces that at least some among a new gen­er­a­tion are at­tempt­ing to seize des­tiny, chal­lenge power, and make them­selves heard bey­ond the stand­ard means of polit­ic­al ad­vocacy and the heav­ily scrip­ted con­front­a­tions with in­transigent au­thor­ity.

There is a break­through as well in the form of polit­ics, what it means to chal­lenge es­tab­lished power and ar­tic­u­late al­tern­at­ives; here we see in­nov­a­tions with­in legacies of civil res­ist­ance, marked by a com­ment­at­or as a trans­ition from “civil” to “polit­ic­al dis­obedi­ence” or, more gran­di­osely, to a “re­fus­al to be gov­erned” as be­fore. Cru­cially, many of the protest­ors are not pe­ti­tion­ing for the right to as­semble in a pre­dict­able, and ut­terly dis­miss­able, ex­pres­sion of griev­ances. They are not vi­ol­at­ing spe­cif­ic, ob­jec­tion­able laws in hopes of chan­ging them, in the fash­ion of the Civil Rights Move­ment vi­ol­at­ing se­greg­a­tion or­din­ances. Nor are they, for the most part, oc­cupy­ing gov­ern­ment or uni­versity of­fices that have the abil­ity to change some par­tic­u­lar policy (though that could enter more and more the rep­er­toire).

Rather, and in de­vi­ation from es­tab­lished tra­di­tions of the protest game, the power of the in­aug­ur­al ges­ture of OWS has been to take what, so claim the pro­test­ers, all of us already pos­sess: pub­lic space (who­ever owns the lease) as an ex­pres­sion of the very idea of the pub­lic, the com­mons, the com­mon good. It is to say that cor­por­a­tions and their polit­ic­al min­ions do not own the parks, and the op­era houses and mu­seums they un­der­write, nor the air and wa­ter and soil and band­width they lobby for and claim. Neither are they re­spons­ible, whatever their cor­por­ate brand­ing, for ele­ment­al hu­man ex­per­i­ences like con­nec­tion and love, or qual­it­ies like the ima­gin­a­tion. The simple but rad­ic­al pro­pos­i­tion be­hind oc­cu­pa­tion, as it has been prac­ticed by OWS, is that with true stew­ard­ship of what is already ours, we can do a bet­ter job for every­one, per­haps vastly so — that we know how to take care of each oth­er, pro­duce, share, de­lib­er­ate, dis­agree, and to keep a park liv­able, its in­hab­it­ants fed, sheltered, and safe. Oc­cu­pa­tion, in sum, is at once the re­fus­al of a false de­pend­ence on com­mer­cial­ized con­scious­ness, the re­pos­ses­sion of the pub­lic, and an open-air ex­per­i­ment in self-gov­ernance that in­vites people to dream of, think pos­sible, and work for large-scale change.

OWS has “broken through” also in the ways it com­pels that we re­think the mean­ing of and pub­lic at­tach­ments to or­der, which is ar­gu­ably a great­er pri­or­ity and vis­cer­al de­sire for some than law, and cer­tainly justice. In this con­text, I should say that I am fas­cin­ated by (if also of­ten fear­ful of) the skir­mishes that break out at the edges of OWS marches. In them, the po­lice evid­ence their ob­ses­sion with their power over hu­man bod­ies, of­ten mani­fest in po­lice ag­gres­sion. The protest­ors, for their part, can on oc­ca­sion pro­voke, and blur the line between de­fi­ance and need­less risk and po­ten­tially coun­ter­pro­duct­ive hos­til­ity. Yet such re­fus­als to be ordered can be a re­fresh­ing chal­lenge to the pre­sumed au­thor­ity of po­lice or oth­ers to tell you can stand here, but not there, or to stop and frisk you—es­pe­cially if a ra­cial or eth­nic “minor­ity”—for no reas­on at all. At the root of such chaf­ing is to con­test why the po­lice and the cor­por­a­tions in the first place are the cus­todi­ans of or­der, and what kind of or­der are they main­tain­ing. To make vivid this point, I in­voke the lan­guage of one of Amer­ica’s great res­isters, Daniel Ber­rigan. Ex­plain­ing in court his raid of a Draft Board of­fice in 1968, he said: “Our apo­lo­gies good friends for the frac­ture of good or­der. … All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world … to the vic­tims … to the sol­diers who kill and die … be­cause they were so ordered by the au­thor­it­ies of that pub­lic or­der which is in ef­fect a massive in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized dis­order[.] We say killing is dis­order [,] life and gen­tle­ness and com­munity and un­selfish­ness is the only or­der we re­cog­nize.”

Ber­rigan’s lines in­vert con­ven­tion­al un­der­stand­ings of or­der and dis­order, priv­ileging over law­ful­ness the true, mor­al or­der vi­ol­ated by the con­duct of in­sti­tu­tions and men and the struc­tures of so­ci­ety. Wheth­er newly ar­tic­u­lated or not, such a sen­ti­ment in­fuses the eth­os and prac­tice of OWS.

Whatever one’s par­tis­an­ship, even a sober ana­lys­is must con­cede that OWS’s trans­form­at­ive power has lain sub­stan­tially in its ca­pa­city to pro­voke by mo­bil­iz­ing pas­sion and com­pas­sion, an­ger and hope in newly con­test­at­ory ways. Its chal­lenge — at a time when it is un­clear in what form OWS any longer ex­ists — is to stay both dy­nam­ic and rel­ev­ant, to lead and not fol­low. Key to do­ing so is to have a sharp memory of its found­ing mo­ment and what en­abled it to win such early suc­cess. Es­cal­at­ing con­front­a­tion, as both an end in it­self and as a way to re­main me­dia-friendly, is a tempta­tion. To guide such pas­sions, one may well re­flect on what else Mr. Ber­rigan’s good words com­pel: that one is eth­ic­ally ob­lig­ated to preach, em­body, and en­act a high­er mor­al or­der, which both drives and dis­cip­lines ones con­duct.

With this vi­gil­ance, OWS has a chance.


Jeremy Varon is Associate Professor of History at The New School, New York City. This essay was adapted from an address he gave at a public forum, "OWS: What's Next?" at the New School on October 19, 2011.

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